By Emily Ehle · 8.1.2021
State parks filled with trails, gorges, and waterfalls, a prestigious university overlooking Cayuga Lake, and a food scene informed by a global sensibility and an “eat local” mentality — Ithaca, N.Y. and its crunchy granola, big brain, environment-focused self offers visitors much to do, see, and eat in ways that leverage its A+ outdoors standing. Ithacans like to announce one of their best environmental assets on bumpers and t-shirts: “Ithaca is Gorges!” But visitors to the hilly, charming college town will find evidence of the spirit of that catchy play on words demonstrated over and over again in the stunning, natural features of this city.
In fact, the area possesses a long history of first peoples who lived, loved, and appreciated this place. “The land that is now Ithaca was originally inhabited by the Goyogo̱hó:nǫ’ — pronounced Guy-a-kono — Nation and the Haudenosaunee (meaning “People of the Longhouse”) Confederacy, who had an appreciation for and continue to celebrate the natural world and the gifts it gives,” says Mariellen Brown, a resident since 2011, an alumna of Ithaca College, and founder of Ithaca.Community, a website that helps Ithacans find places according to their accessibility needs. “So if you think back to the original communities in this region, there has always been a great sense of gratitude for nature.”
Confining all Ithaca offers to a day presents a challenge, but consider this a road map of must-visits.
Everything you see, smell, taste, touch, and possibly hear at the Ithaca Farmers Market was sourced locally and handmade (a requirement for becoming a vendor). And the pride these vendors take in their products — art, pottery, jewelry, flowers, clothing, leather goods, soaps, aromatherapy products, and food from around the globe — is reflected in visitors’ grinning faces as they enjoy their purchases and a view of Cayuga Lake right outside the market at the picnic tables.
The variety of reasonably priced products combined with the lakeside view earns high praise and top billing from many farmers market enthusiasts and their must-visit lists. Yelp reviewer Natalie B. from Pittsburgh, Pa — who bought a bison bone for her dog, honey for her mom, bourbon cider for her brother, and flowers for herself — wrote: “I am so jealous of anyone living in Ithaca. This farmers market is small but mighty! The vendors were so friendly, prices were reasonable, and the options were limitless. Since we were traveling home, we couldn't buy veggies or meat but we made sure to stop at multiple booths for other items.”
With more than 80 vendors on each weekend (Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m), the market features a global range of edible options — from Chinese and Vietnamese cuisines by Asian Taste to delicious cider donuts by Littletree Orchards, cheeses by Crosswinds Farm and Creamery, artisan breads and pastries by Fat Boy Bakery, Khmer Angkor Cambodian Food, Cuban food by La Paladar, traditional Japanese food by Osakaya, Tibetan cooking by Good Loaf, and hand pies by Mama Said. Spend time taste-testing everything in reach, but consider grabbing a snack for the road from places such as Wide Awake Bakery, offering locally grown baked breads, pasta, and granola, and Forty Weight Coffee + CactusHeads, providing freshly roasted coffee and waffles.
The market also features vendors selling local art, including painted wood carvings, traditional Chinese paintings, regional nature photography, and metal work. And if you come for the art, consider returning August 13, when the market transforms into the 29th Annual Ithaca Artists Market from 12 to 8 p.m. The event includes a juried show and sale of locally created art and operating-at-capacity selection of food, beer, and wine to buy in all 88 booths.
Cornell University’s 2,300 acres attract a lot of tourists. One of the few private land-grant universities and an Ivy League university to boot, Cornell offers a wide range of areas of study, including the SC Johnson Graduate School of Management, College of Engineering, Cornell Law School, Weill Cornell Medical College, College of Veterinary Medicine, and School of Hotel Administration (yes, you read that correctly). Cornell also features a diverse student body and faculty who possess a ravenous curiosity about the world.
But what the university offers outside of the classrooms and on its campus are just as impressive, starting with Cornell’s Botanic Gardens, which feature an additional 3,600 acres of blooming gardens, an arboretum, and nature areas. The gardens are home to perennial plants from North, Central, and South America and more than 500 varieties of herbs. Deep reds, bright pinks, and hues of blue and purple shine from the evolving green backdrop of the gardens. The walkways and sidewalks allow visitors to get within smelling range of all those fragrant flowers.
Cornell also features the stunning Johnson Museum of Art. The museum towers over the university, shooting out of the campus’s skyline from the opposite side of Cayuga Lake. The building functions as both a museum and teaching facility for the university and surrounding community. Designed by Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei in 1968 and completed in 1973, the building is one of several in the area designed by the award-winning architect (others include the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York and the first Newhouse School of Public Communications building on Syracuse University’s campus).
Although the museum is currently closed for construction, visitors can enjoy an outdoor light installation exhibit, Cosmos by Leo Villareal, on the building’s ceiling, which features images produced by the artist’s computer software that shapeshift as you stare up in amazement.
Her cred as a longtime Ithaca resident makes Sasha Paris, a coordinator for Sustainable Tompkins, appreciate the area’s embarrassment of natural riches. “I worked at Acadia National Park as a ranger for three seasons, and they've got a whole different set of scenery,” Paris says. “People would come looking for waterfalls, and I just wanted to tell them to look in Ithaca.”
Locals like to recommend three places, starting with Buttermilk Falls State Park, which provides 5.86 miles of hiking trails that scale this misting gorge. The state park offers five trails and their level of difficulty ranges from easy to difficult. Buttermilk attracts all flavors of nature lover, and you’ll find them huffing up trails, scanning treetops for birds, or reading at the bottom of the rushing waterfall.
Only a four minute drive away from Buttermilk sits Robert Treman State Park, which offers 11 miles of hiking land. The park earns its name from the man who donated the land to New York State to preserve it, and it surrounds a gorge, named Enfield Glen, which travels past 12 waterfalls. Make sure you visit Lucifer Falls. It stands at 115-feet and gives hikers a view of the gorge rolling down from a mile and half up.
But Taughannock Falls State Park located 9.2 miles north of Ithaca is the showstopper. The waterfall offers a jaw-dropping view as it plunges down 215 feet into the gorge. Visitors can hike trails beside the gorge up to the waterfall, but the best view comes from an overlook accessible by car giving visitors a direct but distant view of the crashing waterfall.
“A lot of people come to Ithaca for writing,” says Praneeta Mudaliar, an environmental studies and science professor at Ithaca College. “Because you have all of this nature, so close by, which is very conducive to getting your creative juices to start flowing. If I need to get stimulated, I can just go off somewhere, take a walk in the woods, and think and then come back.”
After an early start at the farmer’s market, walk around an Ivy League campus, and an afternoon of gorge hunting, the end of the day warrants an exclamation point. Suggestion: a cold craft beer. And how about one that makes an IPA that Food & Wine magazine called one of the “25 most important American craft beers ever brewed.” That beer would be Flower Power IPA by Ithaca Beer Company, which sits on a huge, rolling farm between Buttermilk Falls and Robert Treman State Park. “The modern American IPA evolved on the West Coast, where the vast majority of hops were grown and new varieties were being cultivated. East Coast IPAs rarely showed the same oomph as their West Coast brethren. But in 2004, Ithaca Beer Co.'s Jeff O’Neil changed that with Flower Power,” wrote the editors of Food & Wine magazine.
The company’s 50 and five barrel pilot brewhouses produce about 20,000 barrels of beer per year. In addition to its beloved IPA, the company offers a variety of options, including year-round and seasonal favorites such as Apricot Wheat Ale. The popular spot flexes with its stunning views of rolling farm fields and friendly staff. And whether you enjoy your adult beverage inside or outside, the beer company’s killer playlist (bands such as The Talking Heads, Arcade Fire, Beach House, and Phoenix) joins you.
After enjoying a beer and the scenery head inside to Ithaca Beer Co.’s in-house brewery restaurant, The Taproom. The menu ranges from light appetizers to pizzas, burgers, and sandwiches (ranging from $6 - $17). And for those who possess a sweet tooth, consider the cookies and cream cheesecake for dessert ($6). The food served in The Taproom seeks to be “as local as possible,” and the staff leverages the on-site farm for 60% of the ingredients for the restaurant’s fare, including vegetables, eggs, and livestock.
But if you have a wine enthusiast in your crew, you might want to visit Ports of New York Winery. Owner and winemaker Frédéric Bouché comes from a long line of French urban winemakers, and he continues his family tradition alongside wife Joanna Luks, a language professor at Cornell University, on the inlet of the south shore of Cayuga Lake. The wine is fermented by vinifera and hybrid grapes, which are grown locally in the Finger Lakes AVA (American Viticultural Area).
Decorated with reused metal and wood panels, this small winery includes a museum and tasting room. Visitors can sample five available products —Quotidian White ($21), Quotidian Red ($24), Tompkins Sparkling ($32), 2006 Meleau White ($52), and 2006 Meleau Red ($52) — and tour the facility as Bouché details his vinification process for guests. And for the more hands-on-learning visitors, Bouché offers opportunities to taste wine directly from the barrel or help stir grape skins and juice.
After a long day of adventures and a few farm-to-glass beverages, you’ll need a place to lay your head and dream of farmers-market treats and flowing-water feats. The Argos Inn - Ithaca’s Boutique Hotel offers a cozy, central option with 13 different room options, ranging from $204 to $296 a night.
“We stayed three nights in the upstairs Glass Porch room and really loved it,” wrote Scott Collier in a recent Google review. “Walls of bright sunny windows which were great for us. The bar was a fun surprise with well chosen snacks available — excellent cocktails and friendly service. The location of the hotel is perfect just a couple blocks walk from the small downtown so we had chances to sample the local fare.”
Or, investigate Airbnb options such as this eclectic downtown apartment ($113 per night).
One final, critical point to consider: If you arrive on a Saturday, you can wedge in one more trip to the market on your way out of town.
Our pursuit of outdoor joy is remiss without the acknowledgement of the occupation of unceded Indigenous land. We are students and journalists working, writing, and living on the land of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, comprising the Six Nations made up of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations. However, acknowledgement is not enough. Read More.